On Friday 24th February, 2012, a seminar by Biotecture on Earthships was held at Bond University’s Cerum Theartre on the Gold Coast in Queensland. Three weeks prior to this date, an article in The Weekend Australian Magazine (February 04-05, 2012), reported on Michael Reynolds’ company and his structures that he calls ‘Earthships’ – see Burning Ambition. The attached images showed an interesting sculptured home that the text elaborated upon in some detail, explaining the philosophy behind this approach to housing. It was seductive. Tyres and general trash were the basis of this technique of construction that used energy-saving principles to service the interior living spaces that could be kept at a comfortable 21 degrees celsius with nothing but natural heating and cooling in all climates, both freezing and tropical, passively, without any extra energy input. The house also grew all the food that a family of four would need. So confident was Mr. Reynolds of his proposal that he guaranteed to pay the extra utility running costs if they rose above $100.00 per annum.
Mr. Reynolds eventually took the floor and immediately played a short video of his work in Haiti. It was a tiny project – a 12 foot-diameter hut built using his system. It displayed in miniature the principles his Earthships were based on. It also highlighted the potential social impact of such a strategy for housing in third-world countries. The exuberance of those involved became a joyous display of song and dance that seemed overly excessive in relation to the actual outcome. One could only assume that the potential was enormous. Still, this little hut did cost $4,000.00 – modest but still a challenge for Haiti. Just how these huts could come to replace the tents in a structured and organised manner to suit the community’s social demands was sketched only diagrammatically, but was never exposed for any considered review or analysis. The critical issue of such environmental strategies is not how the one shelter might work, but how the many might operate as an organism. One unit can be made to look beautiful, but one hundred? What are the public spaces like? What hierarchical arrangements are to be used for villages and towns beyond ordinary geometrically patterned design layouts? Without a successful adaptation strategy for quantity, environmental approaches such as these will remain quirky asides, unique wonders, rather than global solutions.
Mr. Reynolds explained how he used locally available trash – tyres, tins, glass bottles, paper, plastic and metal panels – and anything else that might be able to be collected nearby. He elaborated on the systems of air extraction and intake, and passive heating and cooling that would keep the home at 21 degrees celsius. His graph seemed to suggest a variation between 19 to 26 degrees, but this was never spoken about. The plumbing was traditional plumbing that had additional ‘bio loops’ attached, thus cleverly giving the local authority all of its specific requirements while solving the environmental challenges of zero emissions. The layered approach to comfort meant that the outer, warmer, brighter layer of glazed, greenhouse volumes could be used for growing food. Bananas and other plants were illustrated. Protein was available from fish living in tanks. All water was stored and reused in a cycle that saw rainwater treated to three different levels for different uses, to then be run through gravel beds for plant nutrients and subsequently used to flush the toilet. This waste then moved on to other planting beds for more food supply. It appeared as though the great vision of perpetual reuse had been solved, giving enough of everything for a family of four, forever, for almost nothing. One could only be impressed - amazed. Was it really possible?
One feels a little awkward asking questions about such an apparently beautiful concept for life and living, with its grand ambitions for the human spirit, but if the facts are ignored, there is nothing. Beauty must rest on facts and figures if it is to have depth and substance. Ephemeral dreams of possibilities need only pretty pictures and inspiring words for their sustenance. Mr. Reynolds is an enigma. He is rooted in both worlds of dream and fact. He ponders, promotes and builds. He knows the problems: how the challenge can become the criteria for creativity; how flexibility and adaptation are critical. He is sensitive enough to know that his approach cannot just be blandly reproduced for the Australian aboriginal shelter. He is an ardent promoter of love and care for our environment and in our lives. He has produced beautiful living conditions from waste. He is a realist. Just how he chooses to develop his idea beyond the pretty one-off and the singular, stand-alone structure will be of interest, for the world needs more than hope and love to survive, let alone thrive.